I really enjoyed Hena Khan’s middle grade debut Amina’s Voice (review here), so I’m happy that Simon & Schuster offered me a copy of More to the Story to read and review.
From the critically acclaimed author of Amina’s Voice comes a new story inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s beloved classic, Little Women, featuring four sisters from a modern American Muslim family living in Georgia.
When Jameela Mirza is picked to be feature editor of her middle school newspaper, she’s one step closer to being an award-winning journalist like her late grandfather. The problem is her editor-in-chief keeps shooting down her article ideas. Jameela’s assigned to write about the new boy in school, who has a cool British accent but doesn’t share much, and wonders how she’ll make his story gripping enough to enter into a national media contest.
Jameela, along with her three sisters, is devastated when their father needs to take a job overseas, away from their cozy Georgia home for six months. Missing him makes Jameela determined to write an epic article—one to make her dad extra proud. But when her younger sister gets seriously ill, Jameela’s world turns upside down. And as her hunger for fame looks like it might cost her a blossoming friendship, Jameela questions what matters most, and whether she’s cut out to be a journalist at all…
More to the Story is an endearing story about a Muslim Pakistani American girl, Jameela, who’s struggling to deal with several stressful changes and situations in her life. It touches on multiple themes and manages to balance a number of subplots well and resolve them with a pitch-perfect ending.
First among the issues touched on in the story is Jameela’s father leaving the family to work a job far away. Life as a middle schooler can be tough enough as it is without one of your parents being across the globe. Although modern technology allows long-distance communication, it’s definitely not the same as having your parent by your side on a day-to-day basis. I found this particular struggle of Jameela’s relatable because when I was a teen, my dad had to take a job that forced him to relocate over a thousand miles away, and I missed him terribly. Like Jameela, I have a close relationship with my dad, so I found their dynamic touching.
Another central theme in the story was sibling dynamics. Jameela is a middle child, with an older sister and two younger sisters. I’m also a middle child, with one older sister, and one younger sister. Her relationships with her siblings don’t look anything like mine, but it was still interesting to see how they played out. This story emphasized how, even if you envy them or find them annoying at times, your siblings are your family, and you can’t help but love and care about them.
The third theme I want to talk about is friendship. In the story, Jameela meets and befriends the nephew of a family friend, a British Pakistani boy named Ali who has just moved to the U.S. I liked the way their friendship was developed, with Ali gradually opening up to Jameela, who has a genuine desire to understand him better and help him with the troubles he’s dealing with on his own. I also appreciated the exploration of consent and boundaries and ethical journalism when Ali and his experiences became a tentative topic/subject for Jameela’s school newspaper article.
Next is the subplot on Bisma, Jameela’s younger sister, who develops a tumor. Cancer is terrifying. I know this firsthand from when my mom got leukemia. Despite the fear and uncertainty, Jameela is able to cope with support from her family and takes it upon herself to be as supportive of an older sister as possible. I was several years older than Jameela when my mom was diagnosed, but I found myself admiring and envying her bravery and resilience in the face of everything, and I really wanted to give her a hug to let her know she’s not alone in experiencing such a scary situation.
Another topic that came up in the story was anger management. Jameela is a passionate person who feels things intensely, and sometimes that manifests as anger, which can have destructive consequences. The story is explicit about addressing this issue, which made me appreciate it even more. I feel like if I’d had a book like this when I was younger, I wouldn’t have struggled so much with anger as a teen, something that definitely negatively impacted my relationships with my peers.
Last, but not least, I loved that this book showed a teen pursuing a creative passion and having it taken seriously. A lot of times people downplay kids’ hobbies and interests as things that are fleeting or pointless, so it was heartening to read a story where a young teen character does what she loves and is supported in that endeavor by her parents and other adults. It’s my hope that young readers of this book will feel encouraged follow their dreams, be it journalism or art or science, and carry their passion into the future with them.
All in all, this was a heartwarming read that’s perfect for anyone who loves stories about family, sisterhood, and love in all its manifestations.
Hi again! Today’s Taiwanese author interview is with Henry Lien on his debut middle grade fantasy novel Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword.
The synopsis from Goodreads:
Welcome to Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword, where the blades are sharp and the competition is fierce.
Peasprout Chen dreams of becoming a legend of wu liu, the deadly and beautiful art of martial arts figure skating.
As the first students from the rural country of Shin to attend Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword, Peasprout and her little brother Cricket have some pretty big skates to fill. They soon find themselves in a heated competition for top ranking.
Tensions rise when the dazzling pearl buildings of the Academy are vandalized and outsider Peasprout is blamed for the attacks by her rivals … and even some friends.
Now, she must uncover the true vandal to ensure peace between Shin and Pearl – all while becoming a champion.
Now, buckle-in for this in-depth interview!
Q: To start off, what is your favorite Taiwanese food? (You’re allowed to pick more than one.)
A: What a great question! Food is identity. I choose dan-dan mian (peanut butter noodle). It’s classically Taiwanese, naturally vegan, appeals to young and old, and serves as an eminently charismatic introduction to Taiwanese food. It makes an appearance in the second PEASPROUT CHEN book. In fact, there are a lot of cameos by Taiwanese food in the series.
Runner up would be a traditional Taiwanese breakfast spread with ride porridge, three kinds of pickled vegetables, simmered tofu, fried crullers, warm soy milk, etc. Truly the best breakfast in the world and I will fight, kill, and toss into the sea anyone who says different.
Q: Tell us a little more about Peasprout and the world of Pearl beyond what’s in the synopsis.
A: Peasprout is a huge personality. She is courageous, has a huge heart, is expressive (when she’s not reticent), is warm (when she’s not being icy), makes grand, gorgeous, generous gestures, says things that no one else says, does things that no one else thinks to do or has the guts to do. She is always the most original, most talented, most unforgettable person in the room. When you meet her, you will think about her later that day. She is also self-aggrandizing, deluded, extreme, a bit of a weirdo, and rather lonely. She’s pretty much me.
It was excruciating to write such a deeply flawed character based so candidly on myself while forbidding myself from shading her more flatteringly. However, writing this way was an exercise in a) learning to applaud the parts of myself that I am proud of while; b) gazing at my flaws fully and hideously lit; and c) accepting that I’m perpetually a work in progress and will probably die that way. Sigh.
Regarding the world of Pearl, I could go on and on. It’s a world where you can skate on any surface, any rooftop, handrail, balustrade, etc. The entire city was built to accommodate this fictional sport of wu liu, which combines figure skating with kung fu. The city is essentially a figure skating, kung fu amusement park. It was my own personal parkour course on a city-scale, my own private Disneyland built from a brain-scan of what I liked and cared about. I feel like joy is pretty thin in science fiction/fantasy and the world in general these days. I wanted to create a city that while far from perfect, was in one primary way an exuberant expression of pure joy.
Q: Why the name Peasprout?
A: I wanted a name that that was gender-neutral, equally adorable in English, Mandarin, and Taiwanese, didn’t actually exist, and had a lot of personality. I wanted something that was as rich in Chinese/Taiwanese flavor as the names that Tolkien made up to express essential Englishness in his works.
Q: Given the history and current presence of Asian Americans in figure skating, from Michelle Kwan and Kristi Yamaguchi to today’s Karen Chen, Nathan Chen, and Alex and Maia Shibutani, it feels appropriate to have an Asian ice skating story. Did any of these skaters influence or inspire your story?
A: Massive influence! I don’t feel equipped to make generalizations about why there is such a high representation of Asian Americans in the sport. However, Kwan and Yamaguchi had to both deal with a lot of misstatements and nonsense regarding their Asian heritage in media coverage about their performances, endorsements, etc. That unfairness influenced the book since Peasprout herself is an immigrant and a dawning awareness of unfairness in the world is a classic theme in middle grade fiction.
On a more fundamental level, it felt right to write an Asian skating story because I always saw figure skating as the soulmate of traditional wushu (kung fu).
Q: What kinds of research did you do for this story, if any?
For the worldbuilding, I also did a tremendous amount of research about language, culture, history, international relations, the complex history among Taiwan, China, and Japan, marine biology, architecture, engineering, meteorology, fashion, puberty, culinary fads, superstition, and on and on and on. A lot of that is happening under the hood but there’s so much solid research supporting the book that I in fact don’t really consider it fantasy. The fantastical worldbuilding is actually just exaggerated/extrapolated real stuff. I deliberately set out to write a fantasy that had no magic because I wanted to show that culture and history are in themselves magic enough.
For the characters and the interpersonal dynamics, I spent a lot of time in conversation with women including my sister, my agent, my editor, beta readers, etc., to make the representation of girls diverse and realistic, since I was writing from outside my own lived experience. I particularly wanted to examine the oft-bandied generalization that girls are socialized to be more relational and to develop instant relationships, positive or negative, with every other girl in their social unit, which instinctively felt super-sweeping and super-binary. Whether or not there is truth in this generalization, I wanted to explore the idea that not all girls are like this, want this, or agree with this generalization. Appreciating the differences of opinion about this idea was one of the things I spent the most time on.
Q: What would you say has been the hardest part of writing Peasprout Chen?
A: This question is hard to answer because everything about this book was hard. Perhaps the hardest thing was the puzzle nature of the plot. I was determined to write a puzzle plot that was as ambitious as “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban” or “Abre Los Ojos”. The engineering required to pull off such a plot while staying mindful of all the other elements that go into a book while serving my particular plot’s unusual requirements for pacing, frequency of clues, scaling of transparency of clues to a vast age range of potential readers, passage of time in the book’s world (mapped onto a rigid academic schedule and seasons that don’t match with our world’s seasons but have plot impacts), number of pages elapsed, etc., while also making the book as enjoyable on a second read after you learn its secrets, all while striving for a feeling of effortlessness in the choreography of story elements, was a staggering amount of work.
Q: I went and listened to the podcast of Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters, which was posted on Asimov’s Science Fiction (links: Part 1, Part 2). According to your site, Peasprout Chen’s story is a sequel to this story but also the first in a trilogy of its own. Why did you choose to Peasprout Chen’s story as the start for the series?
A: “Pearl Rehab Colony” was always intended as a contained experiment, a sort of proof of concept for the larger series. It’s told from the POV of Suki, the villain of the Peasprout Chen series. As such, it was intended as an experiment to test my powers of empathy and ventriloquism. However, Suki’s head is a cramped, claustrophobic, forbidding place in which to situate a viewpoint. I don’t think readers would have been able to bear spending 360 some pages in the head of such a nasty person. Peasprout is quite the pill herself but a different sort of pill, one whose edges break off as it goes down, one that sweetens while being broken apart. In some ways, Peasprout’s story is not the story of a winner, but of a loser, and it takes a tenderer, more complex narrator than Suki to bear such things with dignity and beauty. I wanted a narrator that showed that being vulnerable was not incompatible with being strong.
Henry Lien is a 2012 graduate of Clarion West, and his short fiction has appeared in publications like Asimov’s, earning multiple Nebula Award nominations. Born in Taiwan, Henry currently lives in Hollywood, California. Before becoming an author, Henry worked as an attorney, fine art dealer, and college instructor. His hobbies include vegan cooking, losing Nebula awards, and finding excuses to write and publicly perform science fiction/fantasy themed anthems. He is the author of Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword.
Disclaimer: These are all of the ones I know of, not all of the ones that exist! Also if I’m wrong about any of the descriptions/categorizations feel free to drop a comment. Detailed synopses can be found by clicking the hyperlinks in the titles, which redirect to the books’ Goodreads pages. 🙂
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (March 6th) – YA, Contemporary, Novel-in-Verse, Afro-Latina Dominican(?) MC, Own Voices
Children of Blood and Bone (Legacy of Orïsha #1) by Tomi Adeyemi (March 6th) – YA, Nigerian-inspired Fantasy, Black MC, Own Voices
Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes (April 17th) – MG, Fiction, Black MC, Own Voices
Krista Kim-Bap by Angela Ahn (April 18th) – MG, Contemporary, Korean Canadian MC, Own Voices
Inferno (Talon #5) by Julie Kagawa (April 24th) – YA, Fantasy
Trouble Never Sleeps (Trouble is a Friend of Mine #3) by Stephanie Tromly (April 24th) – YA, Contemporary
And that’s the end! I do roundup posts like this bimonthly (I started in July 2017, skipped November-December 2017 due to lack of time/smaller volume of releases), so check back in late April/early May for the May and June releases. 🙂
These posts take a lot of time and effort on my part, and I’m not paid by anyone for the labor. If you have a little money to spare, you can donate to my ko-fi: www.ko-fi.com/theshenners.
So September and October are a gift because there are so many great kidlit titles coming out from authors of color. Here’s a [far from exhaustive] list of ones I’ve had on my radar! I’ve had the privilege of reading many of these already (16 out of 24, which is 2/3), and I can tell you that they are amazing. 🙂
They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera (Sep. 5th) – Young Adult, SFF, Gay Puerto Rican (#ownvoices) and Bisexual Cuban American MCs, M/M romance
2 boys who are going to die meet and bond over the course of about 24 hours
You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins (Sep. 12th) – Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Indian/Bengali American MCs (#ownvoices), Biracial Black/Bengali MC
5 women spanning 3 generations of a Bengali family in the U.S. negotiate their multicultural identities
Shadowhouse Fall (Shadowshaper #2) by Daniel Jose Older – Young Adult, Urban Fantasy, Afro-Latina Puerto Rican MC
Supernatural and real world forces of evil threaten the lives and community of Sierra Santiago, who will do anything to protect her own
Warcross by Marie Lu (Sep. 12th) – Young Adult, Science Fiction, Chinese American MC, #ownvoices
A gamer girl/bounty hunter hacks her way into the world’s biggest virtual reality game tournament and is hired to track down a suspicious figure lurking in the game
Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh (Sep. 15th) – Young Adult, Science Fiction/Dystopian, Korean MC, #ownvoices
A boy who has risen in the military of a future Korea is drafted into a special weapons project that turns girls into war machines and starts to fall for his charge
Rise of the Jumbies (The Jumbies #2) by Tracey Baptiste (Sep. 19th)- Middle Grade, Fantasy, Black Trinidadian MC, #ownvoices
Corinne La Mer makes a dangerous journey across the Atlantic to find a way to save the missing children of her island home
One Dark Throne (Three Dark Crowns #2) by Kendare Blake (Sept. 19th) – Young Adult, Fantasy
The deadly race for the throne has begun, the last sister standing wins.
The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore (Sep. 19th) – Middle Grade, Contemporary, #ownvoices Black MC, secondary Black Autistic character
Following his brother’s gang-related Death, a boy struggles to cope and avoid the gang life and finds solace in building Lego creations at the community center.
The Way to Bea by Kat Yeh (Sep. 19th) – Middle Grade, Contemporary, #ownvoices Taiwanese American MC, secondary Autistic character
One summer away has upended Bea’s life and friendships, forcing her to make new ones and develop confidence in being herself.
Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman (Sep. 26th) – Young Adult, Contemporary, Biracial white/Japanese American MC, Social Anxiety rep, #ownvoices
An anxious aspiring artist flees her abusive home with an old friend-turned-crush and embarks on a journey that will transform her.
Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar (Oct. 2nd) – Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Indian MC, #ownvoices
A girl is swept up in the freedom movement of India through her mother’s participation and becomes involved herself in radical change.
Akata Warrior (Akata Witch #2) by Nnedi Okorafor (Oct. 3rd) – Middle Grade/Young Adult, Fantasy, Nigerian American MC, #ownvoices
A girl and her friends develop their powers as Leopard people to face down and vanquish a threat to humanity.
Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore (Oct. 3rd) – Young Adult, Magical Realism, Bisexual Latina/Mexican American MC, #ownvoices
The Nomeolvides sisters are blessed and cursed. Flowers flow from their hands, but their love makes those they love disappear. A mysterious boy who emerges from their garden estate may be the key to unlocking the secrets of the past and even breaking the curse.
Seize Today (Forget Tomorrow #3) by Pintip Dunn (Oct. 3rd) – Young Adult, Science Fiction/Dystopian
The conclusion to a series about a girl who foresees her own future in which she kills her sister and must work to stop herself.
Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani (Oct 3rd) – Young Adult, Contemporary/Fantasy, Graphic Novel, Indian American MC, #ownvoices
An Indian American girl connects with her heritage through a magical pashmina that transports her to India.
Not Your Villain (Sidekick Squad #2) by C.B. Lee (Oct. 5th) – Young Adult, SFF, Black trans boy MC
Bells becomes a fugitive due to a coverup by the Heroes’ League and has to take down a corrupt government while applying to college and working up the courage to confess his feelings to his best friend.
Xifeng has a great destiny awaiting her, but her path to becoming Empress of Feng Lu requires her to embrace the darkness within her.
Dear Martin by Nic Stone (Oct. 17th) – Young Adult, Contemporary, Black MC, #ownvoices
A Black teen processes his feelings about antiblack racism through a journal dialogue with Martin Luther King Jr. and becomes the center of a media storm when he and his friend become victims of police brutality.
A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo (Oct. 17th) – Young Adult, Contemporary, Thriller, Queer Chinese American MC, #ownvoices
Jess harbors a crush on her best friend Angie and through Angie, is drawn into a wealthy but seedy social circle with dangers they cannot escape unscathed.
After her sister’s death, a girl feels alone and pressured to take her sister’s place, only to discover that her sister may not have been as perfect as she seemed.
Like Water by Rebecca Podos (Oct. 17th) – Young Adult, Contemporary, Besexual Latina MC, Secondary qenderqueer character
A small-town girl falls for someone who brings to the surface secrets she’s been trying to suppress.
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds (Oct. 24th) – Young Adult, Contemporary/Thriller, Novel-in-Verse, Black MC, #ownvoices
His brother is dead, and he’ll make the killer pay, but as he goes down the elevator, someone new appears who is connected to his brother, and he may not make it to the bottom.
Calling My Name by Liara Tamani (Oct. 24th) – Young Adult, Contemporary, Black Christian MC, #ownvoices
A girl navigates her budding sexuality in an ultra-religious environment that treats sex as forbidden and dirty.
Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi (Oct. 31st) – Young Adult, Nigerian-inspired Fantasy, Black MC, #ownvoices
Sin-eaters practice magic to rid people of their guilty feelings but pay the price in a being permanently marked and a short life-span. Taj is called to eat the sin of a royal and is forced to fight against an evil that threatens his entire home.
The Jumbies and Rise of the Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste – MG, Fantasy, Afro-Caribbean/Trinidadian MC, #ownvoices
The Jumbies is an atmospheric tale of secrets and dangers that draws you in and gives you the heebie jeebies. Corinne, our gutsy heroine, will do anything to protect her father from the beautiful but deadly Severine. With the help of her friends, the local witch, and her own latent powers, she sets out to save the island from being taken over by a powerful force. When you are done you will look to the trees and wonder what strange creatures lurk within and whether they might appear to make mischief.
Book 2 tops Book 1 and takes you on an incredible journey across the ocean, with more magic and new friends and foes as Corinne comes into herself and her power. It captures the agony of a painful, half-forgotten past and the fragile hope for a future and brings home the tensions of family and loss.
The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera – YA, Contemporary, Puerto Rican MC, #ownvoices
The Education of Margot Sanchez follows the story of a Puerto Rican girl who’s trying to fit in at her prestigious prep school at all costs. Her desperation drives her to questionable actions, and eventually her misdeeds catch up to her. While she’s serving out her punishment at her family’s grocery store, she meets a handsome young man who’s campaigning against the gentrification of their neighborhood, and through various events, comes to appreciate her community and confront her own mistakes.
This novel covers a lot of ground, including dynamic friendships, peer pressure, budding romance, class struggles, challenging machismo, family drama, and personal growth. Margot is an incredibly flawed person but also a sympathetic protagonist, and watching her character learn and grow was intensely satisfying. In other words, the book really lives up to its name.
American Street by Ibi Zoboi – YA, Contemporary, Magical Realism, Black/Haitian American Immigrant MC, #ownvoices
I had few expectations going into this book and when I came out the other end, I was shaken to the core. This is not an light read. From the beginning it’s wracked with tension and conflict. Fabiola has just moved to Detroit from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and she’s thrust into this new environment without her mother, who has been detained. The American paradise she envisioned turns out to be much grittier than she realized. In Detroit, she relies on her strong-willed and influential aunt and cousins to support her and finds an unexpected romance.
Unfortunately, these relationships are overshadowed by various kinds of violence: intimate partner violence between one of her cousins and her boyfriend, violence from systemic racism and classism, and the violence of livelihoods built upon huge risks and illegal activities. In her quest to free her mother from detainment, Fabiola gets drawn into a complicated and fragile web of secrets and lies that threatens to destroy the foundations of her new life.
What was especially poignant and powerful to me in this book was the juxtaposition of Fabiola’s and her cousins’ respective backgrounds and the way they projected their own hopes and dreams onto one another. Although Fabiola is the primary viewpoint character, there are a few interludes and departures from the main narrative that provide insight into the supporting characters, their histories, their motivations, and so on that add another layer of depth to the story. The magical realism elements were critical to establishing setting and foreshadowing and illuminating the themes of the story.
Trigger Warnings for American Street: abuse, violence, death
The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya – MG, Contemporary, Cuban MC, #ownvoices
Like Margot Sanchez, The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora tackles the theme of gentrification but with a lighter tone. Arturo is an adorkable thirteen-year-old whose extended family lives together in an apartment building and runs a restaurant established by his grandparents. He has a few ambitions: tell his crush he likes her, save the family restaurant and local community from a seedy land developer, and make his grandmother proud of him. Along the way, he discovers the beauty of poetry and the legacy of Cuban revolutionary José Martí and connects with his late grandfather, who left behind letters and verses for him.
This heartfelt story shows us that not all heroes wear capes, and even the thirteen-year-old boy who gets tongue-tied around his crush has a shot at saving the day. My favorite parts were the family dynamics, the delicious food descriptions, and the incorporation of poetry into the narrative as an inspiration for Arturo and a medium for his growth and self-expression.
Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar – MG, Historical Fiction, Cuban Jewish American Immigrant MC, #ownvoices
Lucky Broken Girl is semi-autobiographical and tells the story of a young Cuban Jewish girl who has just immigrated to the U.S. and winds up confined to her bed for almost a year after a car crash that puts her in a full-body cast. While she is cut off from the world outside, she finds solace and companionship in her neighbors and classmates, who bring joy and beauty into her life with their kindness and generosity. Throughout this experience, she struggles with ableism from her parents, who are her caretakers, and her own inner voices, which are exacerbated by her isolation.
Perhaps most poignant and memorable is her period of rehabilitation after she is free of the cast. The anxiety and sense of inadequacy and frustration with slow progress were palpable to me, and intensely relatable as someone who experienced hospitalization for mental illness, albeit not for months.
If there was one thing I really felt was lacking in the story, it was more interaction with people who shared her experiences of disability. They were mentioned but weren’t given much page time, and I feel like including those kinds of interactions would have enriched the narrative. That, and I feel like there could have been space for acknowledging that not everyone is temporarily disabled the way Ruthie was; some have lifelong disabilities (hi, that’s me), and their worth isn’t defined by their disabilities or whether they can recover from/overcome them.
Life update and mini review series introduction: I have a full-time job right now, so writing 600+ word reviews for every book I read has become unsustainable. However, since I still want to share my thoughts on all the books I read, I’m compromising by doing mini reviews for most books and full reviews for a smaller fraction. This first set of mini reviews will focus on five books with Muslim characters that I’ve read recently. 🙂
The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi – Middle Grade, Fantasy, Adventure, Bangladeshi American MC, #ownvoices
In The Gauntlet, Farah Mirza is forced to play a larger-than-life board game in order to save her younger brother from being taken by the game’s Architect. It is such a fun book that really engages the senses, especially sight, smell, and taste. Loaded with loving and vivid references to Bengali, desi, and Middle Eastern cultures, it’s an adventure that you can’t miss. As someone who loves games and puzzles, it was a treat to read about Farah’s three game trials, especially the one involving Mancala, which I played with my sisters when we were young. There were colorful characters and interesting twists and a setting that literally shifts and changes to keep me engaged and delighted throughout.
The Lines We Cross by Randa Abdel-Fattah (originally published as When Michael Met Mina in Australia) – Young Adult, Contemporary, Afghan-Australian MC
The Lines We Cross is a powerful story about racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. The main character, Mina, moves from a racially diverse, working-class part of the city to a wealthier, white-dominated area. There, she meets and goes to school with Michael, who is white and the son of a local conservative political organizer who is the head of an organization pushing a xenophobic and Islamophobic agenda. Despite their differences, the two are drawn to each other and find common ground, and Michael is forced to confront his own privilege and question his internalized biases. The reason this learning and redemption arc works is because Mina’s perspective is there to complement Michael’s, it’s not just centering Michael. Moreover, Mina actively calls out Michael’s ignorance and biases and refuses to perform the labor of educating him, so her purpose in the story is not to serve his character development.
Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali – Young Adult, Contemporary, Egyptian/Arab-Indian American MC, #ownvoices
Trigger Warnings: Sexual assault
Saints and Misfits is a gem of a story about a Muslim hijabi teen, Janna, who’s trying to navigate the confusing feelings of adolescence and deal with her traumatic experience of sexual assault by a supposedly upstanding member of her community. Her voice is refreshingly honest, snarky, and down-to-earth. I loved the different relationships explored in the story, from her family drama, to her friendships with people at school and at the Islamic Center, to her crush on Jeremy, to her mentor-mentee relationship with her imam. The supporting characters really rounded out the story, giving it depth and breadth. The topic of sexual assault was explored with sensitivity and grace, and I found it to be an empowering story for survivors and an honest commentary on how a community may fail its members.
Love, Hate, and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed – Young Adult, Contemporary, Indian American MC, #ownvoices
Trigger Warnings: Islamophobia, physical assault
Love, Hate, and Other Filters is a powerful novel about intergenerational conflict and Islamophobia, how it feels to be caught in between others’ expectations and your own aspirations. Maya’s parents have a plan for her, and it doesn’t involve going to NYU to study film or dating someone who’s not her parents choice of pious Muslim boy, especially not a white boy like Phil. Because of these suffocating expectations, Maya lives a double life, applying to NYU and meeting Phil in secret, and it will break your heart to see her struggle. Parallel to the day-to-day events of Maya’s life, a terrorist plots to wreak havoc. When the attack occurs, the prime suspect shares Maya’s last name, so she gets targeted with vitriol and violence. This book is such an emotional rollercoaster, and the author doesn’t pull any punches. Maya’s fear and hope are tangible, and you feel the weight of her choices. I loved the juxtaposition of Maya’s first-person narrative with third-person snippets of people whose lives are affected by the terrorist attack. It heightened the tension of the story and connected the dots between seemingly unrelated people.
That Thing We Call a Heart by Sheba Karim – Young Adult, Contemporary, Pakistani American MC, #ownvoices
That Thing We Call a Heart happens over the course of a summer, the summer before Shabnam goes off to college. She’s been estranged from her best friend Farah, so she finds companionship in a cute boy named Jamie, who lands her a job at his aunt’s pie shack. It’s hinted at in the synopsis, but Jamie is not that great of a guy, and he sort of fetishizes Shabnam, and through this experience Shabnam comes to learn what a bad relationship looks like and how infatuation can cloud your judgment. My favorite part of the story was her interactions with her parents, her best friend Farah, and her great-uncle who survived Partition. Her dad teaches her about Urdu poetry, which gives her a connection to her heritage and artistic inspiration. Her best friend Farah was by far my favorite character, defying stereotypes of hijabi girls by dyeing her hair and listening to punk music and not taking shit from anyone. Shabnam’s alienation from Farah is very much her own fault, and in the story, she has to work through the issues and make amends. The dynamic nature of their friendship felt realistic, and it resonated with me a lot as someone who’s gone through similar stages with my own best friend. Lastly, her relationship with her great-uncle felt really relatable to me as someone who doesn’t have very close relationships with people of my grandparents’ generation, who lived through two periods of colonization. Her uncle lived through a very horrifying and bloody chapter of history, and it’s hard to communicate and connect when you feel like there is so much you don’t know about someone and their history. Shabnam’s curiosity and weighty feelings and desire to learn more about that history mirrored my own with respect to 20th Century Taiwanese history.
As y’all may already know, I’m a huge SFF fan, and this year Asian SFF YA has been absolutely spectacular! I’ve reviewed Want, A Crown of Wishes, The Epic Crush of Genie Lo already, but I still need to write and post reviews for Forest of a Thousand Lanterns and Warcross. I’ll be honest and say Want and Warcross are my favorite books by Cindy Pon and Marie Lu, respectively. They are so immersive and intense and exhilarating. All of these were five-star reads for me, and I’m so excited for other people to read and hopefully fall in love with them! 🙂
It’s a tie! Rise of the Jumbies is the sequel to The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste, and Shadowhouse Fall is the sequel to Shadowshaper. I have yet to review any of these, but I really need to. I read these two sequels for Caribbean American Heritage Month, which was this past month. Rise of the Jumbies is set in Trinidad and also Ghana (with an epic cross-Atlantic journey in between), and Sierra, the heroine of Shadowhouse Fall, is Puerto Rican. Both series incorporate Caribbean lore, and they are filled with suspense, family bonds, friendship, and journeys of self-discovery. I adore these covers so much.
3. NEW RELEASE YOU HAVEN’T READ YET, BUT YOU WANT TO
I’m not sure what counts as new, but among the books released in the past two months, there are quite a few I’m eager to read:
One Shadow on the Wall tells the story of a boy in Senegal who has lost his father and must support himself and his family. Crossing Ebenezer Creek is based on a historical event during the Civil War era of U.S. history and features a recently-freed Black girl trying to forge a new life and future for herself. I Believe in a Thing Called Love is a contemporary romantic comedy in which a studious Korean American girl attempts to use Korean drama tropes to win the heart of her crush.
4. MOST ANTICIPATED RELEASE OF THE SECOND HALF OF 2017?
HAHA as if I could pick just one or even three. I need to section these off:
The Speaker by Traci Chee (The Sea of Ink and Gold #2, September 12th)
Chainbreaker by Tara Sim (Timekeeper Trilogy #2, November 7th)
If you haven’t read my rave reviews for the prequels to these books, you can go find out why I love them so much. The short version: The Reader (my review) is one of the most creative fantasy novels I’ve read in a long time, interweaving four different storylines and featuring a fascinating magic system in which the act of reading is a literal kind of magic. Not Your Sidekick (my review) is a fresh take on superheroes in a futuristic American West combined with a cute f/f romance. Timekeeper (my review) is set in an alternate England where clocks literally control the flow of time; in this world, our hero investigates a series of clock malfunctions with a sinister source while falling in love with an adorable and mysterious clock spirit.
I wasn’t joking when I said I love SFF! Beasts Made of Night is a Nigerian-inspired fantasy story that centers on a young man who is a magic user responsible for vanquishing the sin-beasts that form from people’s guilt as he navigates a deadly political conspiracy. Rebel Seoul takes place in near future Korea and stars a boy turned soldier who is recruited for a special project involving giant killing machines and forced to decide where his loyalty lies. The Library of Fates is based on the historical invasion of India by Alexander the Great and features a princess and servant on the run, in search of the Library of All Things, which may have the key to changing one’s fate.
Starfish is about a biracial Japanese American girl who deals with social anxiety while away from home and finds the courage to pursue the career of her dreams as an artist. You Bring the Distant Near tells the stories of three generations women in an Indian/Bengali immigrant family as they grow into their American identity. A Line in the Dark features a queer Chinese American girl who gets sucked into an elite social circle that is filled with secrets and danger.
More fantasy! Spirit Hunters stars a biracial Korean American girl who discovers her new house is haunted and has to save her brother from malevolent spirits. Akata Warrior is the sequel to Akata Witch (my review), a fantasy story starring four Nigerian American/Nigerian teens exploring their magic and working together to face down powerful foes. Whichwood is a companion to Furthermore and is a Persian-inspired story about a girl who washes the bodies of the dead and whose hair and hands are turning silver.
5. BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT
Okay so as far as 2017 book covers go, a few have disappointed me:
All of these were in my most anticipated cover reveals post but fell short of my expectations based on their synopses. Specifically, I was hoping that they would feature POC prominently, and they all failed to do that.
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns was probably the biggest letdown out of all of them. The symbolism of the apple blossom isn’t apparent because most people have no idea what an apple blossom looks like and wouldn’t be able to identify it on sight, the font is really tacky, the repeating yin-yang symbols is also kitschy and the only real indicator that the book is based on East Asian cultures, and in general I just wish it had more detail and texture to it. My mental aesthetic for Xifeng and FOTL was Fan Bingbing starring in the Chinese historical drama, The Empress of China, and I was totally hoping for something similar to the images below.
What disappointed me about the Warcross cover was the color scheme: it wasn’t dark enough for the feel of the story, in my opinion. And, to state the painfully obvious, it’s literally just the title in a slightly upgraded version of 2007 MS Word Art. Verdict: should have hired Jason Chan, who did the cover art for Want and Heroine Complex and Heroine Worship.
As for Beasts Made of Night…I was hoping for a Black boy to be on the cover looking fierce and magical, but instead we got animal silhouettes. It’s not terrible, but I wanted something with more texture that really takes up space.
The conclusion: PenguinTeen needs to invest in better cover art. They are horribly underselling their best SFF titles by POC with mediocre covers.
A Line in the Dark gives you the dark and creepy vibes from the synopsis but is once again very vague, and I’m willing to bet the hand model they used for that photo wasn’t even Asian. Like why is it so hard to just put a queer Chinese American girl on the cover?
Okay, I’ll stop ranting about cover art now and talk about actual stories that disappointed me. There were only two, actually.
One was the middle grade book Stir It Up!, which I reviewed earlier this year. As I mentioned in my review, it didn’t have the level of detail and substance I was hoping for in a book centered on Indo-Caribbean cuisine that had so much potential. The other book was The Takedown by Corrie Wang. The premise sounded very interesting, and I was cautiously optimistic despite the fact that it was written by a white author (the main character is biracial Chinese American), but when I actually got to scoping it out at the bookstore, I found the main character really annoying, plus it was lowkey racist and sexist, among other things. Good thing I didn’t buy it.
I was looking forward to reading this book because it features a Thai American protagonist, the 2nd one in contemporary YA that I know of and the first in years. There was some hype going for me. Then I actually read it, and I was completely blown away. My Goodreads review says it all:
“I didn’t intend for my review to be a haiku but the universe had the syllable count planted in my subconscious somehow so here you go:
holy fucking shit
what the hell did I just read
I need to lie down”
Also, my Twitter mini-thread:
narratives I've read. the diaspora narrative really heightens the tensions that play out in the thriller arc bc it's so intensely personal
Okay, it’s fairly rare for a book to actually, literally make me cry, but this book actually did that. It was over a very emotional mother-daughter moment that really struck a chord with me, and I guess the biggest factors that contributed to that was a) the protagonist is [East] Asian American like me, and b) I lost my own mom last year so I’m still really sensitive to stuff relating to moms. If you want to read my thoughts about the Latinx rep (the love interest is Mexican American), I wrote a brief review about it on GR, but as I’m not Latinx, I don’t feel comfortable actually recommending this book to people since it was called out a few months back by a sensitivity reader for bad rep, and I don’t know to what extent that stuff was fixed/edited for the final version.
Okay, this was one of my favorite middle grade books of the year because it was really cute and fun but also creative about turning certain racist microaggressions against biracial Asian people on their head. You can read my full review here.
12. FAVORITE BOOK TO MOVIE ADAPTATION YOU’VE SEEN THIS YEAR
…I don’t think I’ve seen any? Oops.
13. FAVORITE REVIEW YOU’VE WRITTEN THIS YEAR?
Probably my review for Want since it’s such a personally satisfying read because of the Taiwanese rep.
14. MOST BEAUTIFUL BOOK YOU’VE BOUGHT OR RECEIVED THIS YEAR?
It has such gorgeous cover art! It extends onto the back as well, and there’s a Chinese character on the cover under the jacket; it’s the word for the main character’s name, Jing. You can see it in my bookstagram post:
Midnight Without a Moon is based on true historical events relating to the murder of Emmett Till in the mid-20th Century, told through the perspective of a young black girl. Stef Soto, Taco Queen tells the story of a girl who wants to escape the shadow of her family-run taco truck until that very livelihood is threatened, and she become it’s greatest champion. The Harlem Charade follows three kids of color in Harlem as they investigate one of them’s missing grandfather and stumble upon an insidious plot to gentrify their neighborhood. Piecing Me Together tackles the intersections of race, gender, and class for a Black teen girl who attends a mostly-white private school, where she’s identified as “at-risk.” Wintersong is an atmospheric retelling of the story of Labyrinth, in which a girl who loves to compose music becomes the bride of the Goblin King, her creative muse, in order to save her sister. Empress of a Thousand Skies is an epic space opera in which a princess and a former refugee have to join together to help reclaim the throne and save the galaxy. History Is All You Left Me tells the story of a teen struggling with the death of his ex and his own debilitating OCD, and his ex’s boyfriend is the only one who understands his pain. The Foretelling of Georgie Spider is the third and final book in The Tribe series by Indigenous author Ambelin Kwamullina; the series takes place in a dystopian future where people who manifest powers are Illegal and must survive in secret on the fringes of society or be detained by the state. I read the first book last year (my review) and loved it, so books 2 and 3 are waiting for me.
HEY, you made it to the end, yay you! I tag everyone who wants to do this tag. ^o^
The last special guest for May Asian author interviews is Kathleen Burkinshaw. Her debut novel, The Last Cherry Blossom, was published just last year, and in this interview delve into the behind the scenes writing process for the book, which was based on Kathleen’s mother’s experience.
Yuriko was happy growing up in Hiroshima when it was just her and Papa. But her aunt Kimiko and her cousin Genji are living with them now, and the family is only getting bigger with talk of a double marriage! And while things are changing at home, the world beyond their doors is even more unpredictable. World War II is coming to an end, and Japan’s fate is not entirely clear, with any battle losses being hidden from its people. Yuriko is used to the sirens and the air-raid drills, but things start to feel more real when the neighbors who have left to fight stop coming home. When the bomb hits Hiroshima, it’s through Yuriko’s twelve-year-old eyes that we witness the devastation and horror.
SW: Please tell us a little about The Last Cherry Blossom beyond what the synopsis says.
Kathleen: The Last Cherry Blossom depicts the culture, mindset, and daily life during WWII before the bomb was dropped through the eyes of a 12-year-old-something that has not been done before.
My hope is not only to convey the message that nuclear weapons should never be used again; but to also reveal that the children in Japan had the same love for family, fear of what could happen to them, and hopes for peace as the Allied children had. I want the students/readers to walk away knowing that the ones we may think are our “enemy” are not always so different from ourselves. A message that needs to be heard now more than ever.
SW: I definitely agree since the othering of the “enemy” is constantly used to justify violence.
Aside from talking to your mother, what kinds of research did you do for this story? What was the most interesting or surprising thing you learned?
I had to search for books that were about daily life in Japan during WWII-not as easy when you need to find them written in English 😊 But I was lucky to find a couple out of print books on eBay. Also, my local library had some great resources. In addition, the website for Hiroshima has some information on life during WWII in Hiroshima as well.
The most surprising and interesting piece of research happened while in Hiroshima. In July 2015, we went to honor my mom at the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims. (Sadly, my mom had passed away in January 2015. Thankfully, she did know TLCB would be published and had read one of the drafts). The most surprising information came while visiting with the librarians at the Memorial Hall. They kindly spent about 2 hours with me. I gave them my mother’s Hiroshima address and they showed it to me on a map from the early 1940’s. My mother had always said she was over an hour from the center of the city. However, when we looked at it on the map she was only 2 miles away from the epicenter; much closer than what I had thought! To me, it’s a miracle that she survived considering how close she was to the epicenter.
Also, while there I realized the beauty of Hiroshima. I had been so focused on the horrific destruction of August 6th itself. But while we were there I saw the beauty of the sea, the mountains, and palm trees! My mother always said she grew up in a beautiful place and I finally could see it through her eyes. This came in very handy when I returned to my first round of edits from my publisher. The visit to Hiroshima enhanced my descriptions in of Hiroshima before the bombing.
SW: I’m glad your trip surprised you in a good way and allowed you to connect to your mother’s feelings and memories. 🙂
Representing a culture that is unfamiliar to most readers is like an act of translation. Did you have any difficulties on this front while writing your book?
Kathleen: Yes, I wanted to be as true to the culture and time period as I could. However, I needed to make it flow naturally. I spent a great deal of time working through this. One of the issues I had involved dialogue. The Japanese language has a polite form-especially at that time. There are also no contractions when they speak. So, I wanted to show that, but struggled with it sounding stilted. I finally found a balance by using contractions and less formal conversation when Yuriko narrated and when speaking with her friends. However, when a younger character spoke to an adult, or an adult was speaking to the younger character’s, it would be more formal and no contractions used.
SW: Making historical fiction both educational and engaging can be difficult. What techniques did you use to strike this balance?
Kathleen: Yes, it is very difficult. I tried to describe the historic information so it would flow with the story. I didn’t want it to read like a report of Japan during WWII. One of the reasons I used newspaper headlines, propaganda poster text, and radio slogans as chapter headings was to set the tone on what was happening and how it was reported. I wanted the story to be about the characters and their personal issues. The war would be part of the scenery in the world that these young girls happened to live in. I hope I came close to that balance for the readers. 😊
SW: Do you have any favorite historical fiction kidlit titles?
Kathleen: Yes, I do! I have too many to list them all. But a few are: Kira-Kira and Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata. Two books that were inspirational to me were Blue by Joyce Moyer Hostetter and Eleanor Hill by Lisa Williams Kline. Also from the 2016 debut authors- Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban.
SW: I have Kira-Kira and Weedflower on my shelf, but I still need to read them. Weedflower stands out to me in particular because it shows a Japanese girl prominently on the cover.
Although it doesn’t have a person represented in it, I honestly love the cover for The Last Cherry Blossom. Did you have any input on the design, and how did that process work?
Kathleen: Thank you! Katy Betz is the talented artist behind the stunning cover art. My editor asked me to make a mood board. A few weeks later she sent me the cover art. I would have never come up with it (which is why I write and can’t draw), but from the moment I saw it I knew it perfectly represented beauty from the ashes.
SW: What would you say has been the most rewarding part of being a children’s author?
Kathleen: Meeting readers and students who tell me that my mother’s story taught them something they didn’t know about WWII, that her story inspired them, they think differently about nuclear weapons, and that they want me to write more books, touch my heart and amaze me so much.
Also, I’ve received emails from students/readers who didn’t like to read, but after reading The Last Cherry Blossom, they are interested in reading again! What could be a better compliment to an author?!
SW: That sounds lovely. I can’t wait to read and experience The Last Cherry Blossom for myself!
Kathleen Burkinshaw is a Japanese American author residing in Charlotte, NC. She’s a wife, mom to a daughter in college, and owns a dog who is a kitchen ninja. Kathleen enjoyed a 10+ year career in HealthCare Management unfortunately cut short by the onset of Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD). Writing gives her an outlet for her daily struggle with chronic pain. She has presented her mother’s experience in Hiroshima to middle schools for the past 6 years. She has carried her mother’s story in her heart and feels privileged to now share it with the world. Writing historical fiction also satisfies her obsessive love of researching anything and everything. The Last Cherry Blossom is a SCBWI Crystal Kite Award Finalist (southeast region) and 2016 Scholastic WNDB Reading Club selection.
My Summary: Cilla Lee-Jenkins has ambitions to become a bestselling author, an achievement she is certain will ensure her family won’t forget about her in favor of her soon-to-be-born younger sister. Since you’re supposed to write what you know, she writes a book about herself and her life, including her experience as a biracial girl with a family divided by cultural differences.
This book is in sort-of-epistolary format, in the sense that what you’re reading is supposed to be the book that Cilla is writing. The narrative is addressed to the reader, so it doesn’t hesitate to break the fourth wall, if there even is a fourth wall to begin with, ha.
Cilla’s voice is very distinct and full of spunk, so it grabs you from the beginning. She’s precocious, but she’s still a kid in second grade, and the author does a great job of striking the balance between showing off Cilla’s wit and keeping her voice age-appropriate.
A substantial part of Cilla’s story is about being caught between cultures, which is something I could relate to as a fellow Asian American. For example, I was amused by her insightful and direct commentary on the cultural differences between white American and Chinese table manners, having pondered those disparities myself at various points in my life.
Cilla’s particular experiences are also affected by her background as a mixed race kid with a Chinese dad and a white mom. Some of Cilla’s anecdotes involve racist microagressions, not only against Asians but against mixed race people. Since the reader is experiencing the events through Cilla’s perspective, these microaggressions are treated in a different way than they might be in a story for older audiences, in which the character has a greater awareness of and vocabulary surrounding race to address what is happening. Given the younger narrator and audience, I feel like the framing was handled pretty well, showing that Cilla is aware of things being off or hurtful about these incidents, even if she doesn’t quite understand their root causes. In general, these microaggressions are either handled by any adult bystanders in the situation, or they are cleverly subverted through Cilla’s own innocent responses that effectively sidestep the original aim of the microaggressive questions/comments and interject something that was outside the realm of the perpetrator’s expectations.
Both sets of Cilla’s grandparents feature prominently in this story, and I loved reading about her relationships with them and her quest to bring the two sides together despite their years of avoiding one another. As someone who has never been close to my grandparents, physically or emotionally, I always appreciate seeing positive and intimate grandparent-grandchild relationships portrayed in fiction.
Along with family bonds, this book also explores friendship and socialization in a school/classroom setting. I adored Cilla’s bond with her best friend Colleen, who’s Black and wants to be an astronaut or something space-related when she grows up. Despite their vastly different dream jobs, they make a perfect pair who have each other’s backs and share in the other person’s excitement. One of the things I appreciated was that the story depicted and worked through a part of their friendship where they messed up and said the wrong thing and had to figure out how to apologize. There was great modeling of healthy and constructive approaches to relationships and communication, something that is always welcome in kidlit.
There’s another really cute friendship featured in the book, which is between Cilla and a boy in her class named Ben McGee. She starts out finding him annoying for various reasons, but eventually warms up to him and finds more common ground with him. I guess in general I enjoy reading about dynamic friendships in kidlit because they’re realistic and also a good learning/teaching tool for topics like change, conflict, and empathy.
Last thing I wanted to comment on is the lovely interior illustrations by Dana Wulfekotte, who is also Asian American. They were a wonderful complement to the story and helped bring Cilla’s personality and imagination to life.
Recommendation: This is going on my mental Favorites Shelf for middle grade alongside Grace Lin’s The Year of the Dog and sequels. The target age range is a bit young for some of y’all among my blog followers, so it may not be to your taste, but if you’re a parent or teacher or librarian of elementary school age kids, this is perfect for them. 🙂